Reprieve for DC TANF Families Awaits Needed Action

The post that launched this blog bashed the DC Council for rescinding a small increase in benefits for families in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

That was in December 2008, when the recession had thrown the budget out of balance. I mention it now because we’ve come a long way since then — and in one major respect, a longer way from meeting the needs of the District’s poorest families.

In 2008, we left them with the same TANF cash benefit they’d been receiving. Now we’re going to leave some 6,000 of them with no cash at all come October — and more families as time goes one.

They’ll also lose the other benefits TANF families may receive — those that could enable some of the parents to more than fill the income gap.

Or they won’t all lose them. The Mayor and Council could at least partially remedy an extraordinarily harsh and counter-productive policy adopted in 2011.

A bill introduced in December would extend benefits for certain types of the at-risk families — and for all children, regardless of whether their parents qualify.

What Lost Benefits Means

First off, we’ve got to recall that the District’s TANF programs provides only very low cash benefits — a maximum of $441 a month for a parent with two children, for example.

If the family has participated in TANF for 60 or more months — not necessarily consecutive — it’s now receiving $154 a month or 9% of the federal poverty line. Not, one might think, much to lose.

But no cash assistance whatever will make a difference. For example, parents won’t have the money to supplement their families’ SNAP (food stamp) benefits, as recipients are expected to and generally must.

They won’t have the money that enables some of them and their kids to remain housed — often by doubling up with another family and paying some of the living costs.

Getting tossed out of TANF — and with no possible return — will also deny them other benefits that can enable some of them to make it on their own.

For example, they’ll no longer have a trained professional to help them develop and carry out a self-sufficiency plan based on their strengths and needs.

They’ll no longer have subsidies for transportation to programs that improve their prospects in the labor market or to job fairs, interviews and the like.

They may no longer have childcare subsidies either — and most surely won’t have anything like the money needed to pay for child care themselves.

All these losses will impair the well-being and future prospects of more than 13,000 children, not counting those we can’t yet count. So we’ll have another generation of families mired in poverty.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The policy that puts so many families at risk never made good sense, even from a narrow cost perspective.

Sheltering homeless families is hardly free. Medical care for children isn’t either. And we know that food insecurity — and the insecurity of having no home — puts kids at high risk for both physical and mental illnesses.

So how did our policymakers come to put the rigid time limit in place? Well, the DC Council hastily passed a bill pushed by then-Chairman Vincent Gray, who was about to become mayor. The time limit, the Department of Human Services had said, better aligned District policy with federal law.

But the federal law doesn’t require the District or any state to set a time limit. It merely restricts use of the block grant funds that cover a share of TANF program costs to 60 months of benefits per family.

And even here, not altogether. States may further extend benefits for up to a fifth of their TANF families and still use federal funds to pay for them if, among other things, the loss would cause hardship, however the state defines that.

The DC Council, however, made no provisions for extensions. It didn’t even, as most states did, start the countdown when it set the time limit. That would have been only fair in any circumstances.

It was especially harsh and unwise here because the District’s TANF program had egregious flaws, amply documented by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and SOME (So Others Might Eat) before the Council acted.

The flaws, in various ways, minimized a parent’s chances of moving from welfare to work that paid anything like enough — for long enough — to support her and her children.

The Council and about-to-be-former Mayor Adrian Fenty paid no heed. Gray’s new Director of Human Services did, however. He produced a plan to overhaul the TANF program.

Took quite a long time to get it fully operative, however. Parents often had to wait many months to get the training or job search help their plans called for — this after they finally got assessed. But the wait times counted.

And results for the parents up against the time limit suggest that many found — or were placed — in jobs that didn’t last for long or pay enough while they did.

This may reflect on the quality of the services. But it also indicates that many of the time-limited families are headed by parents who can’t — at least, at this point — surmount unusually high barriers to gainful employment.

Why Barriers Argue Against Rigid Time Limits

We’ve known of daunting work barriers for a very long time. A 2003 report from the Urban Institute cited 15 in the District’s TANF caseload. What they tell us — and should have told the Council — is that the rigid time limit doesn’t propel all parents through job training and into the workforce.

Some may become work-ready given more time. Others face barriers that have no foreseeable time limit — severe mental disabilities, for example.

I may have more to say about barriers and the proposed extensions. For now, just a parting shot.

Cash benefits for families now facing cut-offs have been repeatedly cut. That’s why our three-person family receives just $154 a month. The mom could make nearly six times that working only half time at a job paying the District’s minimum wage.

Seems to me no one can reasonably doubt that she would if she could.



One Response to Reprieve for DC TANF Families Awaits Needed Action

  1. […] rigid time limit for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, e.g., here, here and […]

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